My Mahler – Ali Tomkinson

From the opening notes in rehearsal at the CBSO Centre to overwhelming climax of the final movement, last week’s performances of Mahler’s Third Symphony by the CBSO and Vassily Sinaisky reminded me just what a significant role this work has played in my life but also what an extraordinary, audacious and life-affirming piece of music it is.

I first fell in love with Mahler Three over the course of one winter as I practised and practised for my Grade Eight trombone exam – the huge solo in the first movement is a core part of the repertoire for all young players and I always remember being curled up on the sofa, in front of a fire and the sparkling Christmas tree, listening to Denis Wick and the London Symphony Orchestra over and over again. Despite having performed a wide range of the orchestral repertoire by that stage, I had never fully realised the scale of ambition and vision that the most exceptional composers can achieve – combining magical delicacy with sheer power – and it fired a passion for Mahler that continues to this day.

My first live experience of Mahler Three was also my first ever CBSO concert and my first visit to Symphony Hall. Sitting right at the back of the Grand Tier, I was quite overwhelmed first by the premiere of Tom Ades’ Asyla, the sight of Sir Simon Rattle conducting (in his last season), my teacher Phil Harrison taking on the solo and the incredible beauty and transformation that occurs through the second part of the work. Despite knowing the whole symphony, my focus previously had been very much on the raw, visceral first movement and it was only hearing the work live that I realised how seamlessly Mahler takes you through to its heavenly culmination. He might have abandoned the original titles of the movements that take you from earthly flowers, animals and man through to the voices of angels and the overarching power of love but the sentiment is quite clear in the music and I had tears streaming down my face by the end – an experience I have since repeated at many Mahler performances!

It was also through Mahler Three that, over time, I began to realise just how much Mahler taps into your physical core as much as your emotions. There’s something quite unique about the way that the pace of the music matches your heart rate and my wonderful old boss Keith Nimmo at the Wiltshire Music Centre always said that it was because he wrote so much of the music whilst walking in the hills around his summer houses. I always think you can hear that space and light in the music itself but I never noticed quite how much it affected me physically until I was privileged enough to hear my dearest friend, Katy Jones, perform the trombone solo in an incredible performance by the London Symphony Orchestra and Paavo Järvi in 2006. Not only did Katy’s stunning playing have so much heart and depth but my boyfriend of the time reported that (to his great amusement) my breathing throughout was completely in sync with the music. I was totally lost and sucked into a different world.

For me, it’s quite simply one of those rare works that draws you in, wraps you deep inside the music, gets right under your skin and into your soul, before you emerge blinking at the end having been on a journey that you will never fully understand. Last Wednesday’s performance was exactly that – a glorious showcase of the individual CBSO players (notably Ed Jones and the rest of the brass and woodwind section leaders), the richness of our string sound and the amazing surrounds of Symphony Hall. But what it reminds me most is that sometimes, in life, humans can collectively create something that is beyond our wildest expectations, our sense of who we are and our place in the world, and give us hope in all of our dreams. One-off miracles like the Chilean miners can certainly do that but music has an incredible power to deliver throughout our lives and none more so than the music of Mahler.

Ali Tomkinson, CBSO Director of External Relations


About mymahler

Over 2010/11, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Birmingham International Concert Season are presenting Birmingham's first ever Mahler cycle, marking the 100th anniversary of Mahler's death and 150 years since his birth. The Birmingham Mahler Cycle features great orchestras and great conductors - and of course, some of the most incredible music ever written.
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